I began writing this Dark Souls feature as a review. After a while, however, I realized that 1) the game has been out for a month. People don’t care about reviews anymore, and 2) I’d prefer to focus on what’s unique about the game, rather than the production, visuals, etc (although admittedly good).
Dark Souls developer From Software has been around for a long time, and one can see elements of their earlier games King’s Field and Tenchu in Dark Souls. Dark Souls is important because it’s different. It is a high-production game with an indie feel in terms of difficulty and uniqueness. It is imperative that high-production studios follow the direction of indie developers in innovating within their respective genre. Like movies, as games become more and more costly to develop, larger companies are becoming more and more unwilling to innovate and take risks, which ultimately causes the industry to stagnate. From Software, however, has again demonstrated with Dark Souls that they are not afraid of taking risks, and they are being rewarded for it with rave reviews and a sudden boom in popularity.
Differentiating your game from the rest of a genre is especially important when the current state of the industry is fairly bleak in terms of innovation. The largest developers continue to reboot their old games ad tedium, slightly modifying formulaic sports games or first person shooters. If a developer makes a successful game (World of Warcraft or the first COD: Modern Warfare) every other developer with resources to spare scrambles to release their own clone game with identical features.
Dark Souls doesn’t hold your hand. Their tutorials are brief and fairly self-explanatory- “see that guy shooting you with a bow and arrow? You should probably use this shield, or else you’re going to die.” More complex combat techniques, item tutorials, etc. are sparse, perhaps because they know they have a robust player-run online community full of resources- they don’t have to shove the information down your throat, and it’s not their style anyway. They drop you right into the action, and therefore, right into the fun. If you go the wrong way from the starting area, you will quickly learn that you are no match for the stronger enemies nearby. It’s all about learning by dying, even from the beginning. They don’t condescend to the player, and it’s consequently all the more satisfying when you learn to fight on your own.
Another area where Dark Souls shines is the online play. They introduce a number of elements that cause players to collaborate or compete in interesting ways. Players can be summoned into a game to help kill a boss or can invade another player’s game (without permission), being rewarded for either. There is also the new “Gravelord Covenant” that a player can join later in the game, that gives them the ability to infect other players games with stronger black phantom monsters. There is the “miracle resonance” system which causes spells performed in one game to boost the power of spells in other games. Players can write cryptic hints on the ground to lead other players in a less-intuitive, more rewarding direction. These are just a sampling of the large number of interesting ways that players can interact between games, both in the name of solidarity and competition.
Although it was possible in Demon’s Souls to deliberately join a friend’s game by carefully executing the summon ability in a specific way, in Dark Souls it is almost impossible. This has received a lot of flak, but I respect that the game knows its direction. The developers want to emphasize solidarity between strangers, not co-op gameplay between friends who can easily communicate. At times a player might be immersed in a thriving online environment, and other times they will feel totally alone in the darkest depths of the world. The developers impose these restrictions on online play in pursuit of the atmosphere of loneliness that is characteristic to the series. Many games are moving towards letting the gamer have total freedom- some would argue that they should let a player play the game in any way they want; summon their friends, cheat, or retroactively change key decisions (are you SURE you want to be a female dark elf cleric?). I, however, think that a game is only as good as its rules. If the restrictions add to the overall atmosphere/gameplay, and if they are executed and imposed intelligently and fairly, it is just another feature.
Not only do the developers at From Software introduce a wealth of new mechanics to the series (which was unique to begin with), but they also manage to preserve the magic that made the first game a cult classic. They reiterate that they embrace the difficulty of their games, emphasizing that losing is a crucial aspect of Dark Souls. Without meaningful failure, success is just the inevitable consequence of persistence, not any sort of achievement. Success is not rewarding if it’s guaranteed or easy to obtain. The prospect of losing souls (the valuable in-game currency) upon death increases the tension of progressing through the levels, forcing a player to peek around every corner and look for any trap or monster waiting to hasten the player’s demise. The quick auto-save feature is as much of an enemy as a boon, quickly setting in stone every negative event. A player can try to circumvent this system by quickly powering off their system, but they risk corrupting the save data in doing so (I may or may not have had this happen to me- I know, I deserved it).
Permanent consequence, risk & reward- this is the name of the game, and it results in one of the most exciting, immersive gaming experiences I’ve enjoyed in a long time. Other developers take note- the game that leaves a lasting legacy is not the 4th of an inevitable 7 games in a first-person-shooter series, but the game that rejects the formulaic tendencies of the industry and tries something different. But we’ll see if I’m still saying that in 4 years when I’m playing “Dark Souls 5: The Return to the Firetooth’s Castle.”